On April 13, 1861, the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina surrendered to Confederate troops. Two days later, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 militiamen to pick up their rifles and squelch the southern rebellion. The American Civil War was on.
In honor of the soldiers who put their lives on the line in the ensuing four years of war, the Merchant's House Museum in Manhattan is presenting a series of photographs of wounded Civil War soldiers who served in New York regiments. The exhibit marks the first time any of the photographs will be displayed to the public in the 150 years since the war.
Military historian and Civil War reenactor Robert Mulligan, who is from Albany, said the New York battalions included some notable troops.
"One was in the box with Lincoln when Lincoln was shot, and another was the first union officer killed in the war, Elmer Ellsworth," he said.
Each photograph at the Merchant's House Museum exhibit was taken by Reed Brockway Bontecou, who was the surgeon in charge of Washington, D.C.'s Harewood U.S. Army General Hospital. When the war ended, the photographs became the largest part of the government’s war medical photograph collection.
Mulligan has for years played the roles of Corporal James Tamer of the 86th New York Infantry and Sargent Rice C. Bull of the 103rd New York Infantry. Bull was injured in battle and Tamer lost both of his feet, but Mulligan doubted that either of the men passed through Bontecou's hospital.
"It was a hub of medical treatment, but I'd be surprised to find their photographs," he said. "There were just too many injured soldiers."
In 1975, a New York City ophthalmologist who had taken an interest to collecting historical photographs, Stanley B. Burns, acquired the photographs from the Bontecou family. He soon established the distinguished Burns Collection, which has since become the nation’s largest private comprehensive collection of early medical photography.
Dr. Burns has published two (of three) volumes of the Bontecou photographs. The most recent one, "Shooting Soldiers: The Civil War Medical Photography of Reed Bontecou," will be released on Thursday to coincide with the opening of the Merchant's House exhibition.
At the exhibit, more then 100 graphic photographs of human disfigurement will be accompanied by passages from Walt Whitman's "Specimen Days," a memoir of his horrific experiences as a volunteer nurse. Along with other images and memorabilia of the time, the words tell the real story of the Civil War that Whitman said would "never get into the books."
"New York's Civil War Soldiers" will be on display at the Merchant's House Museum in Manhattan from Thursday, April 14, through Monday, August 1. Click below to see a slideshow of images from the show.